50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee in 2017

FilmHubATL Film Festivals

Are film festivals getting better?

That is, are they providing you—independent moviemakers—more of the things you want and need? I think they are. After all, it makes sense: With so much information continually on tap thanks to social media, Film Freeway reviews and magazines like this one, it’s getting easier and easier for indie moviemakers to study up, and harder and harder for festivals to skate by with lackluster effort. Transparency, communication, razor-sharp efficiency, a commitment to inclusion and innovation—these factors used to be a bonus in a festival. Now they’re a given. And long gone are the times when festivals just screened films and called it a day—the top fests of this era start with exhibition, of course, but from there they develop their own ecosystems. This auxiliary support—markets, forums, town halls, speed pitches, live reads, scholarships, roadshows, parties (oh the parties!)— functions essentially, as cinema’s circle of life. It nurtures your next project even as your current one is consumed, getting your art and business that much closer to “sustainable.”

Compiling the list this year, we stuck to much of our tried-and-tested methodology (elements we continue to look for include press opportunities, networking occasions, industry attendance, high-quality workshops and panels, strong alumni services, etc.), but with a couple of twists. For one, we dug a little deeper into acceptance statistics this year, looking at how many programmed films came from submissions (as opposed to special invitation or other means). We found that the percentages fluctuate drastically across the board, no matter the size of a line-up, and we’ve looked for festivals that prioritize submissions.

Why does that matter? As Clint Bowie, director of programming for New Orleans Film Festival, puts it, “This is the area that most desperately needs increased transparency among film festivals. Filmmakers should know what kind of emphasis the festival places on discovering new voices.” NOFF has a mandate that at least 90 percent of its line-up must come from submissions—last year, it was 93 percent. “We post these percentages on our website and on printed materials, and feel that other festivals should be equally transparent.”

We also conducted an online reader survey this year to hear more about what you want in your festival experience. The lesson? That more than anything—more than free plane tickets and booze!—you want your films to forge a genuine connection with audiences who are truly engaged. Well, we can confidently say that that will happen at these festivals. (We also learned that you are overwhelmingly interested in festivals in the U.S. and Canada, which is why this year’s list is just 10 percent international.)

I’ll let a reader—Adam Stilwell, director of 2016 feature The Triangle—sum it all up. “Do the people running the festival give a shit about indie film?” he wrote to us. “Do they ‘get it?’ Do they love it? Or are they just trying to make money off artists? Luckily, the latter [type] is becoming easier to spot as the years go on. Festivals that really care about acquiring thought-provoking films—and creating a place for filmmakers, producers, champions and fans to join forces for good—are on the rise. This is a really, really great thing for film and the future.”

We couldn’t agree more. – Kelly Leow


A: Academy-qualifying

S: Screenwriting contest or competition

V: VR showcase or category

P: Pitch competition or facilitated sessions

U.S. and Canadian Festivals

Aspen Shortsfest

Aspen, Colorado / April 2018 / aspenfilm.org / A, P

The short “(le) Rebound” played at Aspen Shortsfest 2017. Courtesy of Aspen Shortsfest

This year saw the 26th edition of Aspen Shortsfest, put on by premier Colorado film and film education organization Aspen Film. The festival gets a lot of submissions, but for those lucky enough to be accepted, lodging and ground transportation is covered. Winners receive cash prizes of up to $2,500, though a better prize may be the chance of an Oscar nomination—the festival is Academy-qualifying in five categories.

Austin Film Festival

Austin, Texas / October 26 – November 2, 2017 / austinfilmfestival.com / A, S, P

Brave New Jersey actors Tony Hale and Anna Camp at Austin Film Festival 2016. Photograph by Jack Plunkett

Austin Film Festival has a mild obsession with moviemaker mingling. With its concurrent Screenwriters Conference (billed as the largest in the world), the eight-day festival routinely hosts upwards of 200 panels with heavyweight writers and directors, who “come with the same networking intentions as the filmmakers,” assures Film Competition Director Harrison Glaser. You may well make a lifelong friend here—even if it’s just your local filmmaker liaison, the personal host each film is assigned.

Big Sky Documentary Film Festival

Missoula, Montana / February 2018 / bigskyfilmfest.org / A, S, P

BSDFF Executive Director Rachel Gregg in February 2017. Courtesy of Big Sky Documentary Film Festival

A highlight of BSDFF is its five-day DocShop conference: workshops and panels on a focus within documentary. (This year’s theme was short films.) It culminates with the Big Sky Pitch, which presents in-progress films to the likes of HBO, ESPN Films and ITVS. In 2017, the fest accepted almost 10 percent of submissions, including Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ searing Ferguson doc Whose Streets? It also hosted a Listen Lounge, where visitors enjoyed seven locally produced audio documentaries.


Calgary International Film Festival

Calgary, Alberta, Canada / September 20 – October 1, 2017 / calgaryfilm.com / A, P

A cavernous full house at Calgary International Film Festival. Courtesy of Calgary International Film Festival

2016 was a landmark year for Calgary International Film Festival: It obtained Academy-qualifying status, upped its cash prize pool by 53 percent, doubled its press coverage and set new attendance records, and bestowed CAD$50,000 worth of short-film funding to its pitch contest winners. It alsolaunched a series of events called Behind the Screen, including field trips to the Calgary Film Centre studio and other Alberta filming locations, masterclasses, panels, and demos on F/X and animal training. Can 2017 top that?


Camden International Film Festival

Camden, Maine / September 14 – 17, 2017 / pointsnorthinstitute.org/ciff / A, V, P

After Dark parties are a highlight at CIFF. Courtesy of Camden International Film Festival

CIFF’s reputation for top documentary programming means representatives from major doc distributors and funders flock to this tiny seaside town. You’ll get acquainted with them via receptions, surprise “After Dark” parties (“notorious and one of a kind,” says Operations Manager Shannon Herring) and one-on-one meetings staff help to set up. We’d be remiss not to mention the industry-leading Points North Forum, which puts participants in touch with delegates like Oscar-winner Ezra Edelman (O.J.: Made in America).

Chagrin Falls, Ohio / October 4-8, 2017 / chagrinfilmfest.org

Chagrin Falls, population 4,000, hosts up-and-coming CDFF every fall. Courtesy of Chagrin Documentary Film Festival

CDFF is less competitive, submissions-wise, than many big doc festivals, and it’s the personal touch that sets this small town apart. Last year’s audience was 10,000-strong, and is unusually involved with the festival: Lodging is provided via a home stay program, while the fest holds daily “Meet the Filmmaker” events and publishes a “Who’s in Town” flier. CDFF happily provides feedback on all submissions when requested—“a record number of filmmakers took advantage of this in 2016,” says Executive Director Mary Ann Ponce.


Cinequest Film & VR Festival

San Jose and Redwood City, California / February 27 – March 11, 2018 / cinequest.org / A, V, S, P

Roland Vranik’s film The Citizen took home the Best Narrative Feature, Drama award at Cinequest 2016

Cinequest made its name celebrating technical innovation. Fittingly, the festival has elevated its extensive Virtual Reality programs to share the spotlight with traditional cinematic formats, and boasts a new series of VR forums and workshops. Back in regular reality, though, indies play alongside some high-profile premieres, and daily happy hour soirees bring moviemakers into close contact with the leaders of Silicon Valley. Keep your business cards handy.


Citizen Jane Film Festival

Columbia, Missouri / October 26-29, 2017 / citizenjanefilmfestival.org / V

Citizen Jane is held on the Stephens College campus in Columbia, Missouri. Photograph by Chase Thompson

This non-competitive, women filmmaker-oriented festival accepts a relatively high percentage of submissions but doesn’t compromise on quality—the 2016 edition screened critic-approved The LureAbortion: Stories Women Tell and A Woman, A Part, among other titles. The Citizen Jane Summit, an afternoon of communal brainstorming and discussion, gets straight to the heart of the gender parity fight. Visitors then brush up on moviemaking skills at the festival’s day-long film school, and afterwards benefit from the festival’s new exchange program, which waives submission fees to CJFF’s partner festivals.


Cucalorus Film Festival

Wilmington, North Carolina / November 2017 / cucalorus.org / V

A particularly colorful filmmaker lounge at Cucalorus 2016. Courtesy of Cucalorus Film Festival

Our list’s other non-competitive festival is “like a filmmaker cuddle puddle that could lead to something serious,” says Dan Brawley, its so-called chief instigating officer. Cucalorus is famed for its tight community… and its quirk. To wit: 2016 applicants had to submit a fantastical self-portrait alongside their films. (The best portrait won its maker a spot at the festival! Brawley calls this “an honest admission that there are a million ways to build a good festival.”) Beyond November, Cucalorus offers themed filmmaker residencies as well as grants to North Carolina filmmakers.


DC Shorts Film Festival & Screenplay Competition

Washington, D.C. / September 7-17, 2017 / dcshorts.com / S

Filmmaker Melanie Brunt (center) with festival staff Joe Bilancio, Kimberley Bush and Derek Horne at DC Shorts 2016’s awards ceremony. Photograph by Sarah King / Courtesy of DC Shorts

Get accepted to DC Shorts and your short not only plays multiple times during the September event, but may feature in the festival’s year-round screening series, too. A pretty sweet deal—as are the Host-a-Filmmaker and Feed-a-Filmmaker programs, which provide accommodation and chow from generous locals. DC Shorts puts on a seminar with four different tracks: for filmmakers, actors, festival organizers and film lovers. Yet the highlight for many moviemakers is the fact that allsubmissions receive feedback, regardless of acceptance.


deadCenter Film Festival

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma / June 8-11, 2017 / deadcenterfilm.org / P, V

Audiences fill up the house at a deadCenter 2016 screening. Courtesy of deadCenter Film Festival

No, it’s not a market festival per se, but deadCenter wants to help you get distribution. The festival puts together a Distribution Forum every year, facilitating “speed-dating” sessions with representatives from companies such as The Orchard and Lionsgate. Networking takes place at afterparties, panels, a couple of filmmaker brunches and—new in 2017—filmmaker daytrips around Oklahoma City, hosted by locals. You’ll meet the press, too—deadCenter’s dedicated PR committee makes sure of it.


Denver Film Festival

Denver, Colorado / November 2017 / denverfilmfestival.denverfilm.org / V

Actress Hayley Squires was honored for her performance in I, Daniel Blake at the 2016 Denver Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Selects

As Denver Film Festival approaches its 40th year, it continues a tradition of stellar programming. Besides its broad selection of films from all over the world, the festival’s Creative Conversation series offers examinations on diverse critical issues—last year saw such panels as “Igniting the Fire: Indie Film PR and Marketing,” “SeriesFest presents Politics in Television” and even “Art vs. the Artist,” which explored the line between artistic output and personal scandal in the film industry. All alumni receive fee waivers for future submissions.


Edmonton International Film Festival

Edmonton, Alberta, Canada / September 28 – October 7, 2017 / edmontonfilmfest.com

Filmmakers getting their patio party on at EIFF. Courtesy of Edmonton International Film Festival

If you’re looking to engage with a younger crowd, consider Edmonton International Film Festival. The festival has a “Bring a Filmmaker to Your School” program, which allows teachers to book EIFF moviemakers to be special guests at high schools and talk to students about moviemaking. Also, notes Festival Producer Kerrie Long, “EIFF organizers are passionate about attracting large audiences to short films.” The “wildly popular” daily short screenings regularly take in crowds of 300.


Fantasia International Film Festival

Montreal, Québec, Canada / July 13 – August 2, 2017 / fantasiafestival.com / V, P

Fantasia Co-Programming Director Tony Timpone and Co-Festival Director Mitch Davis with Guillermo del Toro in 2016. Photograph by King-Wei Chu

“To ensure that every film has a real shot at making an impact,” says Fantasia Co-director Mitch Davis, “we never have more than three screens going—and we usually limit it to just two.” That’s why the festival runs for a fun-packed three weeks, during which a horde of industry delegates searches rabidly for the next big genre titles. Fantasia’s second weekend hosts Frontieres, an international co-production market featuring receptions, pitch sessions and work-in-progress screenings. 2016 also saw a masterclass taught by, oh, just Guillermo del Toro.


Female Eye Film Festival

Toronto, Ontario, Canada / June 20-25, 2017 / femaleeyefilmfestival.com / P

Female Eye provides opportunities to get something off the ground. There’s the festival’s Live Pitch for features, the Good to Go script pitch (for writers with projects ready for takeoff) and the two-day Script-Reading Series with professional actors. Unlike its film line-up, which features women-directed titles only, the festival’s script development program is open to men, as well—as long as their screenplays feature female protagonists. Last year, the festival launched a channel on streaming site IndieVue designed to be a paying platform for alumni films.

FilmQuest Festival

Provo, Utah / September 8-16, 2017 / filmquestfest.com / S

“Shortwave” director Ryan Phillips won four Cthulhu trophies at FilmQuest 2016. Courtesy of Daniel Amezcua Photography

Genre fest FilmQuest has done much in its three years of existence, but its proudest accomplishment might be its growing community of alumni who reunite at parties held throughout the year. Last year’s edition featured a number of interesting panels, such as “Minorities in Genre: Past, Present, Future,” “Practical Effects in the 21st Century” and “Worlds That Don’t Exist: Writing for Genre.” This year, says Festival Director Jonathan Martin, look forward to “a live symphony playing the music of great genre film scores,” among other events.


Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival

Providence, Rhode Island / August 8-13, 2017 / film-festival.org / A, S, P, V

The Providence Performing Arts Center hosts Rhode Island International Film Festival. Photograph by Mike Braca

This BAFTA-, Canadian Screen Awards- and Academy-qualifying festival hosts a slew of smaller fests and sidebar presentations that submissions automatically enter, as well. Education is something that RIIFF takes seriously: This year, the festival is expanding its Flickers’ Filmmaker Mentorship Program, which matches local filmmakers and students with international filmmaker mentors during the run of the festival. It will also partner with University of Rhode Island on a course immersing students in festival operations and activities.


Heartland Film Festival

Indianapolis, Indiana / October 12-22, 2017 / heartlandfilm.org / A

Guests at the 25th anniversary Heartland Film Festival Awards Party in Indianapolis, 2016. Courtesy of Banayote Photography and Heartland Film Festival

Alumni praise Heartland Film Festival’s engaged audiences—who get to interact with visiting moviemakers beyond October through encore screenings, masterclasses and other roadshow events. Fest participants gets cozy at a newly expanded Premiere Pavilion party area, where Q&As, live music and other festivities take place. All accepted shorts are offered non-exclusive distribution on ShortsHD, and if that deal isn’t sweet enough for you, the generous cash prizes ($100,000 will be given out this year) probably are.


HollyShorts Film Festival

Los Angeles, California / August 10-19, 2017 / hollyshorts.com / A, V, S

Actor Luke Wilson with HollyShorts co-founder Theo Dumont at the 2016 festival edition. Courtesy of HollyShorts Film Festival

This year, the newly Academy-qualifying HollyShorts adds a VR category to its line-up. Those projects will join a bonanza of quality short films, many of which can be screened on streaming site Bitpix during the 10-day festival, for moviemakers curious about their new friends’ work. Competition is stiff for the prizes, which include Kodak film stock and partial funding for your next project. 2016 attendees enjoyed panels ranging from an intellectual property primer to a proof-of-concept how-to, all in the heart of Hollywood.


Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival

Toronto, Ontario, Canada / April 27 – May 7, 2017 / hotdocs.ca /A, V, P

No shortage of passionate documentary fans at Hot Docs 2016. Photograph by Christian Pena

Hot Docs is a documentary giant with major industry attendance and knockout programming (2016 hosted the international premieres of O.J.: Made in AmericaCameraperson and Life, Animated). Haven’t got a film to show yet? Next to the festival runs a huge industry conference and forum—billed as “North America’s most effective international documentary market”—which puts heavy focus on international co-producing. Consider attending some of its workshops and town hall sessions and getting schooled.


Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival

Hot Springs, Arkansas / October 6-15, 2017 / hsdfi.org / A

Ed Asner (subject of documentary My Friend Ed), actor Robert Walden and filmmaker Sharon Baker at Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival 2016. Photograph by Aaron Brewer

Last year, Lara Stolman’s feature doc Swim Team world-premiered at HSDFF and went on to a robust and prestigious tour of the circuit—one of the festival’s many success stories. Hot Springs attendees party in some creative venues—think historic bathhouses, the Gangster Museum of America and the majestic Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa—that give the whole affair its fantastic local color. Don’t forget to pack your bathing suit.


Indie Memphis Film Festival

Memphis, Tennessee / November 1-6, 2017 / indiememphis.com

Tennessee fest Indie Memphis approaches its 20th year. Photograph by Breezy Lucia

Indie Memphis keeps evolving. Last year, the fest acquired Amazon Studios as a marquee sponsor, becoming the first festival outside of Sundance, Tribeca and Seattle International Film Festival to receive the honor. “They cited our commitment to diversity as a key factor,” says Executive Director Ryan Watt, and—after a strong line-up of African-American titles in 2016—civil rights will continue to be a programming focus. Get ready for live music before every film… and copious barbecue, too.


Julien Dubuque Film Festival

Dubuque, Iowa / April 20 – 23, 2017 / julienfilmfest.com

Psychedelic pop band Dengue Fever played the JDFF 2016 awards ceremony. Courtesy of Julien Dubuque Film Festival

Communication is a big strength of this burgeoning Iowa festival. Staff provide intensive publicity assistance, from placing interviews on local radio to connecting filmmakers with the surrounding schools. “I also personally write to filmmakers who don’t make it as official selections,” says Executive Director Susan Gorrell. “Yes, it takes a lot of time, but it’s a personal touch that I think is very important.” Another nice touch? Films screen up to four times over the four-day festival.


Mammoth Lakes Film Festival

Mammoth Lakes, California / May 24-28, 2017 / mammothlakesfilmfestival.com

A tight-knit cohort at MLFF 2016’s closing night party. Courtesy of Mammoth Lakes Film Festival

Expect prime bonding with your fellow moviemakers at Mammoth Lakes. We’ll let Festival Director Shira Dubrovner count the ways: “We take over a student housing facility and put filmmakers all in one place. We take them on a field trip to the ghost town of Bodie, one of the top five ghost towns in America. We treat them to a night of bowling. There are also informal nightly visits to the local hot springs where filmmakers can have a warm, relaxing soak, under the moon and stars.”


Maryland International Film Festival

Hagerstown, Maryland / March 2018 / marylandiff.com / P

(L-R) Festival President Tom Riford, actor Ben Bray, Executive Director Tracie Hovey, Treasurer Heather Guessford, Board Member Nicole Houser, Creative Director Joe Carnahan and Vice President Mary Anne Burke. Courtesy of Maryland International Film Festival

Director Joe Carnahan (The A-TeamThe Grey) is Maryland International Film Festival’s creative director, and his presence during opening night festivities makes for a great networking opportunity. This six-year-old festival’s line-up is very indie, with the occasional festival circuit darling (for example, Kamala Lopez’s documentary Equal Meets Equal this year). Beyond the screen, the festival features extracurriculars like speed pitching and acting classes. Students submit for free to its high school shorts contest.

Miami Film Festival

Miami, Florida / March 9-18, 2018 / miamifilmfestival.com

Dazzling waterfront partying at the Miami Film Festival. Courtesy of Miami Film Festival

Sponsors such as the nonprofit John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and HBO bestow generous prizes on award-winners at this festival, now in its 34th year. MFF is known for its particularly strong programming of new Ibero-American and Floridian cinema. At this spring’s edition, attendees enjoyed North American premieres like Radu Mihaileanu’s The History of Loveand Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha, plus a Google Talks series on improving diversity in film and tech.


New Hampshire Film Festival

Portsmouth, New Hampshire / October 12-15, 2017 / nhfilmfestival.com / S

New Hampshire Film Festival’s 2016 Comedy Panel: (L-R) Greg Kretschmar, Josh Meyers, Rae Dawn Chong, John Michael Higgins and Tom Bergeron. Photograph by Stewart Mellentine

Accessibility is key here: both in terms of geography—all venues at NHFF are within a mile of each other—and industry, with distributors like A24, IFC Films, Magnolia Pictures and Oscilloscope Laboratories attending. The fest also holds a press party a week or two before opening night for regional outlets to get a head start on coverage (a nice touch!). Besides stellar events like the annual Insiders and Comedy panels, last year’s edition partnered with Red and G-Technology for a workshop on various types of workflows, from VR to hi-res.


New Orleans Film Festival

New Orleans, Louisiana / October 11-19, 2017 / neworleansfilmfestival.org / A, P, V

LBJ star Woody Harrelson with his wife and daughter, opening night at the 2016 New Orleans Film Festival. Photograph by Craig Mulcahy / New Orleans Film Festival

New Orleans Film Festival is upping its commitment to diversity with a new mandate that its line-up be at least 50 percent women-directed titles, and 35 percent by directors of color. (Juries tend to be equally diverse.) NOFF also manages a mentorship program, pairing emerging moviemakers of color with veterans. All this in addition to a slew of networking and pitch opportunities—325 one-on-one meetings were facilitated in 2016, with reps from IFC, Roadside Attractions, CAA and many more. No wonder more than 400 moviemakers attended last year!


Oak Cliff Film Festival

Dallas, Texas / June 8-11, 2017 / oakclifffilmfestival.com

Moviemakers got a private tour of Texas’ AT&T Stadium at Oak Cliff 2016. Courtesy of Oak Cliff Film Festival

If you’re a film junkie, this Dallas fest’s for you—the historic Texas Theatre, where screenings take place, projects in 16mm and 35mm, and previous editions of the fest have hosted a day-long workshop with Mono No Aware where participants shot, exposed and projected 8mm and 16mm film. Ninety-five percent of out-of-town moviemakers and jury members received airfare last year, and all received free lodging. Expect festival founders and staff to be in-the-know, yet approachable.


Outfest Los Angeles

Los Angeles, California / July 6-16, 2017 / outfest.org / P, S, V

Chris Kelly’s Other People was a hit at Outfest 2016. Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

At 35, Outfest is mature, but still growing. In 2016, the LGBT festival held an inaugural Fast Track pitch session event for its Screenwriting Lab fellows, allowing them facetime with executives. (Still more meetings are set up through Outfest’s Industry Link program.) For such a reputable stop in the heart of L.A., Outfest boasts a pretty healthy acceptance ratio—and programmers will pass on selected titles to its partner Newfest in New York.


Oxford Film Festival

Oxford, Mississippi / February 7-11, 2018 / oxfordfilmfest.com / S, V, P

Actor Danny Glover attends the 2017 Oxford Film Festival to introduce the Oscar-nominated film I Am Not Your Negro. Photograph by Tenola Plaxico

Oxford Film Festival’s programming hits a pleasing blend of satisfying low-budget fare and prestige titles, a recipe that’s responsible for the increase in attendance that the fest has seen in recent years. This February’s edition featured a varied array of panels, from SAG Indie’s “Actors Taking Charge of Their Career” to “Fest Forward: Careers in New Media.” Another special treat for visitors was Danny Glover—the actor attended to introduce a screening of Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro.


San Luis Obispo International Film Festivals

San Luis Obispo, California / March 2018 / slofilmfest.org

Ann Margret and Alan Arkin attend SLOIFF 2016. Courtesy of San Luis International Film Festival

This rapidly growing, though still cozy, Central California festival has a pervading warmth, with enthusiastic crowds who come out for the thoughtful programming. Downtown San Luis Obispo is plenty nice already, but the festival conducted a special trip this spring that brought moviemakers to visit shooting locations in the area—and it encourages additional drop-ins to nearby wineries with a complimentary wine-tasting pass. The lavish filmmaker gift bag, full of local goods, is something to look forward to, as well.


Santa Fe Independent Film Festivals

Santa Fe, New Mexico / October 18-22, 2017 / santafeindependentfilmfestival.com

Jacqueline Bisset received SFIFF’s 2016 Lifetime Achievement award. Photograph by Sage Paisner

A strength of SFIFF is the talent on display at its panels: 2016’s edition saw talks with MacGyvercreator Lee Zlotoff, director Jay Roach (Trumbo) and editor Paul Barnes (The Thin Blue Line), moderated by producer-screenwriter Kirk Ellis (John Adams). Add to that a solid independent line-up (titles like Sherng-Lee Huang’s and Livia Ungur’s Hotel Dallas and the Oscar-nominated doc Fire at Sea played last October) and historic venues like the Lensic Theater and Jean Cocteau Cinema, and you’ve got a winner.


Savannah Film Festivals

Savannah, Georgia / October 28 – November 4, 2017 / filmfest.scad.edu / V

La La Land director Damien Chazelle attends Savannah Film Festival 2016. Photograph by Cindy Ord, courtesy of Getty Images for SCAD

Sure, some of the year’s most fêted films screen at Savannah (La La Land and Moonlight, anybody?) but rest assured that a good chunk of the festival’s line-up are unheralded gems. As it’s presented by Savannah College of Art and Design, there’s a down-to-earth, collegiate feel to SFF, with heavy student participation and educational masterclasses. Entries to the animation and student categories are free during a certain window every year, as are submissions from festival alumni.


SENE Film, Music & Arts Festivals

Providence and Warwick, Rhode Island / April 25-29, 2017 / senefest.com / S

The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow performing at SENE 2016. Photograph by John Pitocco

SENE (that’s Southeast New England, for the uninitiated) makes a serious effort to help moviemakers get press coverage. The festival provides a press release template for crafting materials, and has successfully booked spots on local TV. This 9-year-old festival is nevertheless still intimate and homegrown, held over five days, with live music and art exhibits programmed alongside film. SENE also programs for the Boston Comedy Festival in November, so comedy shorts submissions are eligible for both fests.

Sidewalk Film Festivals

Birmingham, Alabama / August 25-27, 2017 / sidewalkfest.com / V

Sidewalk Film Festival lit up Birmingham in August 2016. Photograph by Joe De Sciose

This three-day festival packs a wallop, with an absurd number of parties (11 in 2016) squeezed into one weekend (not to mention 15 bands performing live, too). It’s hard not to befriend your peers with that kind of nonstop mingling—especially over such activities as screen printing souvenir T-shirts or gorging on a midnight Mexican breakfast buffet. Even better is the fact that those peers are behind the circuit’s best films, like Little Sister and Donald Cried in 2016.


Slamdance Film Festivals

Park City, Utah / January 18-25, 2018 / slamdance.com / A, V, S

Moviemaker and Slamdance programmer Oates Wu in Park City, January 2017. Photograph by Ian Stroud

Slamdance gets thousands of submissions each year from moviemakers vying for a piece of that Park City pie, but if you’re a first-time feature director (whose budget is under $1 million), there’s probably no better way to burst onto the scene. Multiple films from this January’s edition have received distribution offers, and the festival’s partnership with ArcLight Cinemas offers alumni films theatrical screenings throughout the year. Plus, attend the Slamdance Polytechnic Program events during the fest for lessons focused on technology and DIY craft.


Stony Brook Film Festival

Stony Brook, New York / July 20-29, 2017 / stonybrookfilmfestival.com

No Pay, Nudity stars Loudon Wainwright III, Nathan Lane and Donna Murphy, director Lee Wilkof and SBFF founder and director Alan Inkles. Photograph by Rebecca Uliasz

With only about 40 films playing SBFF it’s definitely a quality-not-quantity situation. The fest, presented by Island Federal Credit Union, spans 10 days, which results in a relaxing pace. “Every film we show is a priority,” says Marketing and PR Director Julie Rulon Greene. “We show one film at a time, all on our 1,000-seat Main Stage theater, on a 40-foot screen.” That’s right: You’ll get the same treatment A Man Called Ove director Hannes Holm and No Pay, Nudity star Nathan Lane did last year.


Tacoma Film Festivals

Tacoma, Washington / October 5-12, 2017 / tacomafilmfestival.com / V

A VR studio known as The Veldt at Tacoma Film Festival 2016. Photograph by Kris Crews

An arts haven in Southern Washington’s Puget Sound area, Tacoma is home to a blossoming creative scene that swells come October with visiting artists—like Filmmaker Magazine’s annual class of 25 New Faces of Independent Film. (Pro tip: That’s who you should be networking with.) TFF offers cash prizes up to $5,000 for award-winners. Also up for grabs: Valuable feedback from submissions judges upon request, and, once you’re an alumnus, unlimited fee waivers for future editions.


Tallgrass Film Festivals

Wichita, Kansas / October 18-22, 2017 / tallgrassfilm.org

Doing Wichita proud… Courtesy of Tallgrass Film Festival

A Tallgrass tradition: the Stubbornly Independent Award, which gives one selected film (made for under $500,000 and lacking distribution) a grand gala night screening and $5,000 in cash, amongst other prizes. New this year: DoXX, a program for female-directed documentaries. Between the old and the unprecedented are a wealth of things done right, like educational opportunities (workshops and town hall discussions) that are free to the public, and have an entrepreneurship theme this year.


Twister Alley International Film Festival

Woodward, Oklahoma / April 27-29, 2017 / twisteralleyfilmfestival.com / S

Talent takes the stage at Twister Alley Film Festival. Courtesy of Twister Alley Film Festival

This young festival in Northwest Oklahoma (it turns three this April) is well on its way to becoming a regional gem, so get in while you can, we say. The line-up last year included Oscar-nominated shorts “We Can’t Live Without Cosmos” and “Everything Will Be Okay.” All screenings take place at the vintage 500-seat Woodward Arts Theatre, making for some concentrated networking. Alumni praise the staff’s effective communication and attention to detail.


Vancouver International Film Festivals

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada / September 28 – October 13, 2017 / viff.org

“Cabbie” directors Jennifer Chiu and Jessica Parsons win the $20,000 VIFF 2016 Ignite Award. Photograph by Alisha Weng / Courtesy of Vancouver International Film Festival

Like any festival worth its salt, VIFF employs what it calls a “film plus” model—the “plus” referring to extracurriculars like last year’s inaugural Sustainable Production Forum, exploring all facets of green moviemaking (with a keynote address by The X-Files creator Chris Carter). As for the “film” part, the festival reports high levels of viewer engagement; no surprise, with its marketing department deploying an arsenal of special interest contact lists for laser-precise audience targeting.


Victoria Film Festivals

Victoria, British Columbia, Canada / February 2-11, 2018 / victoriafilmfestival.com / V

Star Duane Howard answers audience questions after Kirsten Carthew’s The Sun at Midnightscreens at Victoria Film Festival 2017. Courtesy of Victoria Film Festival

Another British Columbia stunner, Victoria Film Festival is intent on moviemakers getting to know each other. Every party is preceded by a filmmaker happy hour to facilitate bonding; VFF’s director also invites small groups of moviemakers to lunch or dinner throughout the festival. As for the audiences, they get to participate in film discussion groups with the fest’s head programmer over drinks. A recent development is VFF’s newfound focus on technology and new media, with presentations exploring interactive and immersive storytelling.


Washington West Film Festivals

Washington, D.C. / October 25-30, 2017 / wwfilmfest.com

Chris King, director of short film “Birthday,” with actor Robert Duvall at WWFF 2016. Courtesy of Washington West Film Festival

Screen your film at WWFF, do a good deed. The festival donates 100 percent of its net box-office proceeds to charities fighting malnutrition, disease and lack of education for children. “Our festival president was told by big name festivals that this business model was festival suicide,” says Director of Programming Ariel Lee, “but here we are, seven years later, and growing!” If that’s not enough of a draw, we hear that the fest also puts on a filmmaker-only oral storytelling event—with whiskey involved.


Woods Hole Film Festivals

Woods Hole, Massachusetts / July 29 – August 5, 2017 / woodsholefilmfestival.org / S

Scott D. Rosenbaum’s feature documentary Sidemen: Long Road To Glory plays at the Woods Hole Film Festival 2016. Photograph by Kris Marie Photo and Gene Chambers

The scientific community of Woods Hole often gets involved in this 26-year-old festival, joining panel discussions for science-centered films, for example. Add that to the home stay program for visiting moviemakers, the village’s walkable nature, and the gatherings organized in local restaurants and residences, and no wonder this Cape Cod fest is known for its intimate, friendly atmosphere. Most of the titles in the line-up come from submissions, and written feedback can be requested from programmers.

American Film Festivals (Wroclaw, Poland)

Wrocław, Poland / October 24-29, 2017 / americanfilmfestival.pl

For a festival whose submissions are completely free, the American Film Festival in Wroclaw, Poland doesn’t exactly get inundated in entries—so what are you waiting for? The festival is the only event in Central Europe dedicated to American independent film, and is designed to be an avenue toward both European distribution and co-production. Its two-day workshop for feature masterpieces in the making, U.S. in Progress, showcases up to six titles to European buyers and post-production houses.


Black Nights Film Festivals

Tallinn, Estonia / November 17 – December 3, 2017 / poff.ee / S, V, P

Kelly Fremon Craig’s crowd-pleasing The Edge of Seventeen screened at Black Nights Film Festival 2016. Courtesy of STX Entertainment

This Estonian festival is more of a “film market” than our other international picks, with its annual Industry@Tallinn summit: Expect works-in-progress showcases, co-production meetings, a talent lab and panels on how to enter the Russian and Baltic regional markets. This year, a new Storytek Creative Hub explores digital marketing, financing, production and sales in the global industry. Some of the high-caliber American titles to screen last year were Hell or High Water and The Edge of Seventeen.

International Film festivals Mannheim-Heidelberg

Mannheim and Heidelberg, Germany / November 9-19, 2017 / iffmh.de

IFFMH has an unusual newcomer-only policy for its line-up. Courtesy of International Filmfestival Mannheim-Heidelberg

Though it’s the second oldest film festival in Germany, this stately affair in the country’s Baden-Württemberg state is a self-proclaimed “newcomer festival,” a platform for up-and-coming voices (many of whom don’t remain unknown for very long—hi, Jim Jarmusch and Atom Egoyan). Its annual Mannheim Meeting Place forum is designed for first- or second-time producers interested in international co-production. Producers lucky enough to be selected receive intensive mentorship from veterans of the industry.


Iris Prize Film Festival

Cardiff, Wales / October 10-15, 2017 / irisprize.org / P

Class photo from Iris Prize Festival 2016. Photograph by Jon Pountney

Eight shorts have been produced to date under the auspices of the Iris Prize (i.e. the £30,000, or US$36,600, cash prize given to the festival’s Best Short Film winner, enabling his or her next short)—two of which were selected for Sundance. This LGBT festival is an Academy- and BAFTA-qualifier; beyond screenings, it holds a low-budget producing forum, youth filmmaking conference and education day, as well as daily brunches, cocktail receptions and themed parties.


Oaxaca FilmFest

Oaxaca, Mexico / October 6-13, 2017/ oaxacafilmfest.com / S, P

Filmmakers visit the Monte Albán ruins at Oaxaca FilmFest 2016. Photograph by Douglas Favero

The rise of Oaxaca FilmFest, now 8 years old and one of Mexico’s premier indie destinations, has been impressive. Competition to get in is stiff, but the payoff is considerable: The festival treats each film royally, offering every feature its own dedicated press conference. The three-day New Industry program offers directors and screenwriters workshops with distinguished reps, while the recently added Young Industry program does likewise for students. Bonus: On your day off, take in the nearby ruins of Monte Albán. MM

Illustrations by Kate Prior.

Fifty is not enough! As always, we had to leave out dozens of wonderful festivals this year. Feel free to give us an earful in the comments. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Spring 2017 issue. Curious about past years’ lists? Read our 2016 list here and our 2015 list here.


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